/Answers: Our Favorite Sundance Movies

Before Sunrise

Hoai-Tran Bui: Before Sunrise

When Before Sunrise premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, director Richard Linklater was already the “King of Sundance.” With Slacker and Dazed and Confused, Linklater had made himself the spokesperson for sharp and sharply funny Gen X cinema, and for Before Sunrise, he teamed up with one of the generation’s biggest stars, Ethan Hawke. But Before Sunrise dropped all forms of ’90s irony, instead serving a dreamy, ambling, and rapturous portrait of the uncertainty of falling in love.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play two young travelers who, after meeting on a train from Budapest, spontaneously decide to disembark at Vienna where they spend the evening talking about life, love, religion, and everything in between. Before Sunrise is perhaps one of the most pleasant movies I’ve ever experienced — it’s two beautiful people falling in love to the backdrop of a beautiful European city, after all — but there’s the looming sense that life will doom these young lovers when their dreamy sojourn ends. Of course, Jesse and Celine’s prediction about their relationship ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy when Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy team up two more times for Before Sunset and Before Midnight.

Before Sunrise isn’t my favorite of Linklater’s Before trilogy — I prefer the bittersweet resentment of Before Sunset — but it spawned one of my favorite trilogies. Linklater would revisit those themes of ephemerality in his ambitious project Boyhood, but he still hasn’t recaptured the magic of the Before films. Alongside its sequels, Before Sunrise becomes an intriguing snapshot of the confidence and optimism of youth, but on its own, it’s still a darn good love story.

Chris Evangelista: The Blair Witch Project

By the time The Blair Witch Project premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 1999, the hype train for the film was already moving at full speed. The cast of the film were listed as either “missing” or “deceased”, and nearly everyone who lined up to watch the movie was operating under the assumption that it was a real documentary about real missing film students.

Of course, it wasn’t, but by the time everyone found that out, it didn’t matter. The Blair Witch Project was already on its way to becoming both a hit movie and a cultural phenomenon. Even though I grew up well-versed in movies and movie trailers, The Blair Witch Project is the first film I actually noticed a marketing campaign. The film didn’t simply rely on trailers: it had a whole website devoted to the “case” of the missing film students who trekked into the woods, never to be seen again. By the time I saw the film in theaters, I was well-aware that it wasn’t a true story, but that didn’t make me love it any less.

Jacob Hall: Whiplash

For me, Sundance has always been about discovering the young and promising filmmakers who arrive with a bang and few young filmmakers have arrived as fully formed as Damien Chazelle. Before he took home an Oscar for directing La La Land, he helmed Whiplash, a drama about jazz drumming that’s more intense and stomach-churning than the vast majority of horror movies. It’s a film that’s ultimately about greatness being born through pain, but Chazelle focuses on that pain and makes you one with it – Whiplash would be physically difficult to watch if it wasn’t so damn entertaining.

Of course, the centerpiece here is J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, a jazz instructor who torments Miles Teller’s Andrew out of a desire to bring out the greatness in him. It’s an astonishing performance and Simmons walks a high wire in his every scene. Fletcher has to be horrifying, a monster who goes too far, an abusive would-be mentor who seems to take great pleasure in demolishing the dreams of young people. But deep down, we are also allowed to realize that he has a point and that treating his students gently won’t make them great musicians. He’s one of the great villains of the past decade, mainly because his vileness derives from a place that anyone with an artistic bone in their body can understand.

One of Hollywood’s best character actors and a fresh young director collaborating on a movie that already feels like a classic? Yeah, Whiplash is a total Sundance movie.

Matt Donato: In Bruges

This week’s answer was a toss-up between Brick, Reservoir Dogs and In Bruges for me, but after two recent Three Billboards watches and with Martin McDonagh on the mind, In Bruges takes the crown as my favorite Sundance film. Razor-sharp assassination satire accented by a grumpy tourist’s smarmy insults – has Colin Farrell ever been better? In my opinion, Ray’s liquor-soaked waltz through a sleepy Belgium vacation trap gets better when bullying starts, but is best when addressing one tortured man’s inability to appreciate the world around him. 2008’s strongest pitch-black jumbling of life’s greatest questions – like “Who heet zee Canadian?”

Only as McDonagh can craft, In Bruges is seismically hilarious and tremendously meaningful. When laughs are needed, Ray taunts an overweight tourist outside “narrow” tower stairs or karate chops a “short arse” racist little-person actor (who, yes, deserved it). There’s never a moment where Farrell’s bored schoolkid routine doesn’t rub Brendan Gleeson’s Ken the wrong way, which means we never stop laughing. Harry’s “YOU’RE AN INANIMATE FUCKIN’ OBJECT!” line alone – there’s nary a line without quotable reverence, which is a testament to McDonagh’s dynamite script.

Of course, it’s Ken and Ray’s relationship that humanizes an otherwise cutthroat gangster flick. A hitman duo enter Bruges with the intention of laying low for two weeks, yet find their souls touched by medieval decor and womanly charms. Harry, played with no grit to spare by Ralph Fiennes, orders Ken to dispose of Ray because of a botched job – which Ken cannot do. Ray’s closing remarks about Bruge representing Hell tells so much about the journey each man takes, from washing away sins to washing down regret. McDonagh allows his characters to crawl down the darkest, dirtiest paths, but this only illuminates their epiphanies with a greater glow.

In Bruges is a damn-near perfect movie, and I would have loved to see it open Sundance in 2008 – especially with such a heavy-handed characterization of Americans. No love lost, Mr. McDonagh. We’re easy targets and you’re too wise a filmmaker to waste such barbed opportunities. Plus, with a movie this good? You’ve earned yourself a wit-cracking pass for life.

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